In vaccine geopolitics, a great game played with Ukrainians’ health

Women walk past an installation showing a protective face mask amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kyiv, Ukraine Dec 28, 2020. REUTERS
Ukraine, already caught up in the broader tug-of-war between East and West in European politics, has now also become a focal point in the geopolitics of coronavirus vaccines — so far, to the country’s detriment.

First, talks with Pfizer and other Western vaccine makers to obtain early shipments collapsed after the Trump administration banned vaccine exports. Now, unless the incoming Biden administration steps in, the earliest commercial purchases of Western vaccines will not be delivered before late 2021.

Not surprisingly, Ukraine’s plight has caught the eye of Russia’s state-controlled news outlets, which have highlighted the failure of Ukraine’s Western allies to step up in a moment of need — and offering Russia’s vaccine as an alternative.

Ukraine’s leaders, who have raised worries about the safety and efficacy of the Russian vaccine and would, in any event, almost literally die before accepting help from Russia, their blood enemy, turned to China, buying its first vaccine in a hurried negotiation in the final two weeks of December.

“Russia, as always, uses this in its hybrid war, as an information weapon,” Maksym Stepanov, Ukraine’s health minister, said of the country’s effort to inoculate its population. “The issue of vaccines is politicised.”

The Russian taunting has outraged Ukrainians, though there is little they can do to counter it without an alternative vaccine supply.

“Russia is pursuing an active policy of aggression, even with the vaccines,” said Oleksandr Linchevsky, a former deputy health minister. “It’s in Russia’s political interest that Ukraine receive the vaccines from elsewhere as late as possible,” because it wants to fill the gap with its own vaccine.

Ukraine, with a population of 42 million, is scheduled to receive 8 million vaccine doses under the COVAX program that supplies low- and middle-income countries that might not otherwise be able to gain access to vaccines. But those doses are not due to arrive until at least March. Negotiations for Western shipments later in the year are continuing, Stepanov said.

Before President Donald Trump’s executive order banning vaccine exports from the United States, Ukraine had been in talks with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to speed up delivery. Although the negotiations are continuing, the delivery times are being pushed back.


© 2020 New York Times News Service